At least in the locavore world, the idea that vendors in the Little Rock Farmer's Market — this year's readers' choice for the best place to find fresh vegetables — sell produce that's not grown in Arkansas makes folks fighting mad. "The thought of someone selling a pineapple down there makes me want to punch somebody," my friend who manages a local restaurant said the other day.
Josh Hardin, of Laughing Stock Farm, actually did come to blows over produce last year — or rather he told me he got blindsided by a baseball bat — following a dispute with some resellers at a market in Hot Springs Village who he said were selling produce purchased from his family's farm, Hardin Farms, at a cut rate. That adversarial relationship, between market farmers and non-farming "peddlers," as the farmers call them, is what led Hardin and his brother Jody to break away from the Little Rock market in 2008 and start the Certified Arkansas Farmer Market in North Little Rock, a readers' choice runner-up this year.
After a slow start, the North Little Rock market, which takes place from 7 a.m. until noon every Saturday during the summer in a parking lot in the 500 block of Main, is near outgrowing its space, according to Hardin. It's become the market of choice for people who like their produce and meats to come with words like "heirloom," "grass-fed" and "organic."
Which included, two weeks ago, massive, deep green and yellow-splotched heirloom moon and stars watermelons; goat's-milk soap that promised to make skin "glow"; exotic varieties of heirloom tomatoes with names like orange, ox heart and pineapple; "pastured" pork in just about any cut you'd want ("Our pigs live low-stress lives enjoying the freedom to exercise," promises the website for the seller, Farm Girl Natural Foods); pickled quail eggs and blackberry syrup available in shots for sampling. The cream of the crop: North Pulaski Farm's candy-sweet grape tomatoes, which owner Kelly Carney affectionately calls "crackberries."
But even as the North Little Rock market grows, it's still utterly marginal compared to the Little Rock market across the river. On Saturdays, when the farmer's market is on (from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.; same hours, but fewer farmers on Tuesdays, too), the River Market takes on the feel of carnival. The hordes aren't merely — if at all — eyeballing peaches and squash; they're waiting in line for a clown on stilts to tie a balloon animal, they're shopping for birdhouses and fake tattoos and rainbow-colored tutus, they're buying kettle corn.
Those who are shopping for produce and such will find my friend's pineapple, or at least they would recently. But casting out the whole market because of a pineapple — or any of its other alleged sins — is like tossing out a peach with a bruise. Keep a careful eye and there's plenty of goodness to be found. Like plump Bradley County tomatoes; "come back" peaches that live up to their name; free-range beef, pork and chicken from Beebe; mounds of bush beans and pre-shelled purple hull peas packed tightly in a Ziploc. The east side of the market, in particular, is a destination. It's dominated by Asian farmers, who grow all sorts of exotic produce, all terrifically low-priced: long purple okra; bunches of edamame baby soybeans; bitter melon, an oblong gourd with candy-red pulp inside; ka kong, from the spinach family, and golf-ball sized Thai eggplant.
Luckily, the market divide doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. Real produce lovers make two stops on Saturday.